“People scare better when they’re dyin'”
Mention the name Sergio Leone and you immediately think of Clint Eastwood and their Man With No Name trilogy. The truth is that Leone was the master of the spaghetti western and largely responsible for making Clint what he is today. When the Italian director decided to try his hand at Hollywood, he was welcomed with open arms, except they weren’t interested in anything but an American copy of a spaghetti western. Leone had something else in mind. He had a “been there, done that” attitude about the westerns and wanted to do an epic called Once Upon A Time In America. But Hollywood was hearing none of that. So they compromised. If Leone delivered a stylistic western, the studio would spring for the epic he wanted to make. The result of that parlay turned out to be Once Upon A Time In The West.
Once Upon A Time In The West is more about iconic images and style than it is any particular story. Jill (Cardinale) has arrived in town to marry McBain (Wolff). But he and his family have been massacred by ruthless killer Frank (Fonda). Frank and his gang want the valuable land, but what they hadn’t counted on was that Jill had already married McBain secretly before she arrived, and the land is now hers. She’s helped out by two other ruthless men in the form of Harmonica (Bronson) and Cheyenne (Robards). It becomes a test of will and strength between the three men.
Leone was a huge fan of the early westerns of John Ford, and it shows in the wide vistas and incredible badlands locations for the movie. While some of the film was indeed shot in Spain and Italy, a great deal of it was shot in Arizona using places that Ford used repeatedly in his films.
The movie is short on dialog. While it clocks in at about 2 1/2 hours, there are literally about 20 minutes of dialog in the picture. At the time of its release, Time magazine dubbed it “tedium in the tumbleweeds”. All of the hallmark Sergio Leone trademarks can be found. There are long scenes where you get incredibly close shots of a person’s face, particularly the eyes. Leone loves the stare-down, and you can see it in virtually all of his films. In this movie he allows the camera to linger longer than ever before. You get those quiet scoreless scenes where the natural sounds of the environment are greatly exaggerated, from the squeal of a weathervane to the harsh whistle of an approaching railroad engine. Leone’s opponents take a long time to feel each other out before they act. When the action comes, it almost makes you jump out of your seat. He’s kept you waiting to the point where it’s literally painful before allowing the gunfire to suddenly intrude on the tense scene. You saw it in his Man With No Name trilogy, and you’ll find the effect used far more intensely in this movie.
And that’s the only trouble. The film did rather poorly at the box office because it requires an inhuman amount of patience to enjoy. Fans of Leone expect it, so we might be more tolerant. The average movie-goer is far less willing to tolerate the long stretches of silence and inaction. Even much of the little dialog that does exist is tedious and does little to actually move the film along. Leone was never one to be rushed, and it wasn’t going to happen here.
There was actually a part written for Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef from his trilogy, but they turned down the cameo performances. There is a short piece that opens the film where you meet three gunfighters who engage Bronson. He thought it would really mess with the audience’s expectation if those had been the faces of his three most popular actors. It’s unfortunate. That might have become one of the most iconic scenes in western history.
While Eastwood would become a huge name shortly after his Leone westerns, it’s important to remember he was just a television-show star at the time. Leone had not used big American stars in his earlier work. Here he decided to populate the first Hollywood pictures with considerably larger stars. Henry Fonda is wonderful here, mainly because he plays so perfectly against type. He had a reputation for playing the all-American good guy. No one expected him to play such a ruthless and brutal killer. It was effective casting at its best. It’s likely Fonda never played in a film where the star had so few lines, but he made the most of every scene he’s in. If you work with Leone, you better learn to act with your eyes and facial muscles. Then there’s Charles Bronson in one of his first major feature films. He’s basically just coming off The Dirty Dozen. He’s essentially playing the stoic Man With No Name in this film. He’s known only for the harmonica he wears around his neck, which becomes a vital element as the story finally reveals itself. We don’t know who or what he is. Jason Robards plays basically a sidekick role here that also played against type. He was known for authority figures, and here he’s a running fugitive who happens to get caught up in this land fight. He’s very much the accidental hero in all of this. Finally, you have Claudia Cardinale who plays the widow Jill. It’s Leone’s first strong female part and was quite unusual for the time. She’s out for revenge, and while she has the help of the two gunslingers, she does a great job of carrying her own load. She’s not the typical damsel in distress, to be sure. Even the supporting cast includes such notable performers as Jack Elam, Keenan Wynn and Woody Strode.
Writers on the film include the future master of the spaghetti nightmare Dario Argento and Leone long-time contributor Sergio Donati. They contributed elements that would become standard issue in the westerns of the future.
Finally, no Leone film could be complete without the wonderful music of Ennio Morricone. The themes for each character are distinctive here, another unusual element for the westerns of the day. It is an essential character in the film and goes a long way to make those long pauses remain interesting to us.
Once Upon A Time In The West is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25 mbps. The film has been restored thanks in part to Paramount, the Rome Film Festival, and the Film Foundation. The high-definition image presentation certainly has its flaws, but the restoration has brought this film to as beautiful as it has ever looked. Those trademark close-ups show the most improvement. When you look into those eyes, you can see veins and hair follicles. This is indeed a detailed presentation. Colors are a little soft and washed out, much as Leone intended from the start. Thankfully, the print grain remains, and the movie absolutely feels like a living, breathing film. The vista shots can be quite remarkable, with the least impressive work being the medium shots. Black levels are about fair. There is wonderful texture to be found here that could leave you choking on the dust.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is anything but aggressive in the surrounds, which is absolutely appropriate. The low range appears to have been boosted, and you’ll notice better subs than expected. Highs are often a bit harsh with some signs of distortion. Dialog is fine. Many of the sounds Leone uses for atmosphere come through quite naturally enough.
There is an Audio Commentary that is a collection of cast members, crew, and film historians. This is pieced together from various sources.
The extras are pretty much in standard definition.
An Opera Of Violence: (28:49) A lot of the same folks who participated on the commentary can be found here. There are film historians and Leone experts who offer a somewhat academic analysis of the movie and also Sergio Leone himself.
Something To Do With Death: (18:16) The conversation continues, this time touching on the score, the film’s running time, and politics.
Railroad Revolution: (6:21) A documentary on how railroads opened up the West.
Locations Then & Now: (4:29) Stills show shots from the movie and then a still of the same location and angle today.
For a film that Leone really didn’t want to do, it has become somewhat of a classic even though it never did well commercially. It’s the kind of film that other directors and insiders tend to like. It shows up in movie classes all the time. Now you have a chance to see it like it has never been seen before. It’s worth the effort if you can find the patience. That patience will be greatly rewarded. Sergio left us with some wonderful characters and iconic images. “He’s someone you’d remember.”